Indonesia's Dirty Courts

Last Thursday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono suspended Antasari Azhar, the powerful chairman of the Corruption Eradication Commission, from his post after he was accused by police of being the mastermind in the gangland-style murder of a businessman.

The temporary removal of a commission member accused of a major crime is required by law under the statutes setting up the commission. But Yudhoyono, by not interfering and keeping to the line that justice must move forward in the case, could be presiding over an important moment in Indonesian politics — reinforcing the idea that powerful officials are not above the law in criminal cases, and that Indonesia's judicial system is improving.

Coming off a major victory for his political party in last month's legislative elections, Yudhoyono is a hands-down favorite to win reelection in July. Given his considerable power and prestige, he is key to both seeing that justice is done in the Antasari case and to protecting the future of the Corruption Eradication Commission.

In a country long seen as one of the most corrupt in the world, Antasari's case could be a bellwether for Indonesia. The anti-corruption czar, along with a senior police official and a businessman, has been accused of leading at least nine suspects in masterminding the murder of state pharmaceutical company executive Nasrudin Zulkarnaen last March as Nasrudin left the gates of a golf course where his mistress had been a golf caddy. According to widespread reports, the caddy, Rani Juliani, had also been involved with Antasari, perhaps in a blackmail scheme. Police say privately that photographs of the two having sex in a hotel room have been discovered.

Elaborate Theories

There have been some reports that Antasari wasn't the only top official to be caught in a trap set by Nasrudin, a man with a colored reputation at best, according to state officials who had dealings with him. There have been few accolades showered upon Nasrudin since his demise, but whether or not lots of people wanted Nasrudin dead, the fact that Antasari is now detained may speak volumes. The next few months will determine if the judicial process is transparent and whether justice will be done.

While Yudhoyono has earned relatively good marks at home and abroad for his stand on fighting corruption, there is little evidence that he has done anything about the legal system. Indeed, the impressive record of convictions racked up by the corruption busters, known locally as the KPK, is because a special corruption court was set up along with the commission in 2002, and in recent years it has acted like a real court, jailing legislators, officials and even a central bank governor. But a 2007 ruling by the Constitutional Court — which may feel threatened — required the government to secure new enabling legislation for the special court by the end of this year or see it go out of business. That process has been predictably stalled in the House of Representatives, nine of whose members are currently in prison as a result of the Corruption Court's actions.

Given the extraordinary powers of the KPK and its court — wire taps of cell phones, warrantless searches, summary detentions — there are many powerful figures, clean or otherwise, who would breathe a sigh of relief if the Antasari case permanently disabled the commission. That line of reasoning has led to fevered speculation in Jakarta that Antasari himself is the victim of some kind of trap within a trap in which Nasrudin was used as a sacrificial pawn.

The larger game here, though, should be the woeful state of the local courts. The judiciary "is one of Indonesia's weakest and most controversial institutions, and many consider the poor enforcement of laws to be the country's number one problem," said the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), which last September rated Indonesia's courts the worst in Asia, along with those in Vietnam. Some court rulings in Indonesia have been "so controversial that they have seriously hurt confidence of foreign companies," said PERC, without giving specific examples.

Getting Away With Murder

Then there is murder. Certainly, across Southeast Asia, it seems all too often that the powerful literally get away with piling up the bodies with impunity. Jakarta is no exception. In 2002, a court jailed Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putri, the son of the late strongman Suharto, on charges of murder for allegedly masterminding the murder of a judge who had earlier handed down a prison term for Tommy on corruption, illegal weapons possession and evading justice. Ironically, it was Antasari who prosecuted the case. But Tommy got just 15 years, later reduced to ten. He served only four and was freed in 2006 from what was by all accounts a luxurious jail cell where his girlfriends could visit.

Across the region there are similar tales. In Malaysia, sworn depositions and circumstantial evidence connected current Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to the 2006 murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, but the court never even brought Najib to the stand, despite convicting his two bodyguards of the crime.

Najib's best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, was charged with murder but was exonerated by the court last year without even having to put on a defense. He fled the country.

In Thailand, Duangchalerm Yoobamrung, the youngest son of once-powerful Thai politician Chalerm Yoobamrung, was acquitted of murdering a Thai police officer in a bar in Bangkok in 2002 after numerous eyewitnesses changed their testimony.

Starting with the still-unsolved question of who ordered the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino at the Manila airport in 1983, the Philippines has seen so many murders with apparent paths to the powerful, that the crime is almost routine, leading Human Rights Watch and others to accuse the country of allowing extrajudicial assassinations with impunity.

For Indonesia, the efforts of the KPK to bust graft and a high profile murder have now been linked.

Indonesia will go a long way towards redeeming its reputation if Yudhoyono exerts his considerable clout to make sure the Antasari case proceeds to the point where justice is done, one way or another. But he should not let this case lead to a repudiation of the KPK itself. Having crafted a public image as a corruption fighter and reformer, it will be up to Yudhoyono to see that the KPK emerges stronger from this ordeal and the corruption court gets the enabling legislation it needs.

As Political and Economic Risk Consultancy says: "Better judicial systems are associated with better intellectual property protection, lower corruption and wealthier economies." And better judicial systems make sure murderers are put behind bars.